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Guest Blog: Empathy: 3. The most useful tool of all?

About the author: Steven Rollnick is a clinical psychologist and Honorary Distinguished Professor at the Institute of Primary Care & Public Health, School of Medicine, Cardiff University. In the final blog of the series Stephen explores further the concept of empathy as an effective tool for coaches and coach developers.  Is it in your toolbox? Can you afford for it not to be.

In his last book, Over But Not Out, on its first page, the cricketer Richie Benaud said: “Never discard listening as a source of learning. It could be the most important decision you ever make”. What did he mean? He never really explained.  

In this third and final piece on empathy I will turn to its various uses, having defined it in pervious posts thus: it’s a skill, involving firstly listening to and imagining what someone is meaning or experiencing, and then secondly, capturing the essence of this and handing it back to them in the form of a statement, an imaginative guess, not a question.  

A coach might benefit hugely from practicing empathy. Richie Benaud might have meant that the most important contribution you bring to coaching is you, in your authenticity, your ability to listen, the quality of your relationships and your desire to really help athletes develop.  Practicing empathy is a direct way of demonstrating this. The effect of empathy is to leave the player with this thought: “This coach considers me as important and is really trying to help and understand me”.  This also balances out the power in the relationship, from one in which the coach knows everything to one in which two equal partners are working together in the service of improvement in the athlete. You don't have to know everything to be a good coach. Indeed, that idea might have a toxic effect on the athlete’s learning. Your vulnerability and willingness to learn is surely what Richie Benaud was thinking of? Empathy changes you.

As you practice empathy other benefits often become apparent. Here’s a useful one: there is no more rapid way of connecting with a player than by using empathy and nothing else. Consider this sequence, where every coach contribution is an empathic statement in an exchange lasting just a couple of minutes:

Coach: Hey, good morning, you look a bit rushed
Player: I’m rough to be honest, but I’ll improve as the day goes on
Coach: (sitting down alongside) You’re not at your best
Player: Say that again, I hardly slept and I’m still angry with myself after last week
Coach: You don't feel you did yourself justice
Player: or you sir.  I’m sorry about how I performed
Coach: You wish you could have done better
Player: I know I can do better, my confidence was slipping
Coach: and that’s something you want to improve on
Player: Definitely and I hope I can find a way
Coach: You want to at least get some benefit from today’s practice
Player: You guessed right there. That would help a lot, and I’ll sleep much better.
Coach: It might help a little with your confidence.
Player: A little might help a lot
Coach: Let’s see now. Two heads will be better than one...  

Imagine the above player, on another day, furious with a teammate, red hot angry, shouting and refusing to even speak with her colleague.  What’s the most efficient and effective way of calming the situation down?  My experience in other fields is that if you only use empathic listening it does exactly this. Quickly. Then you can consider how to turn this into a learning experience for both parties.   

Empathic listening can be used to steer a conversation gently in the direction of change and improvement, a discovery that gave rise to a counselling style called motivational interviewing. You will notice this use of empathy in the last few statements of the coach above (“and that’s something you want to improve on,” “You want to at least get some benefit from today’s practice” and “It might help a little with your confidence”).  The statements are all purposefully forward-looking, and the athlete’s response is to talk about change more clearly. How motivational interviewing can be integrated into the coach’s conversation toolbox is yet to be properly explored.   

By way of conclusion, here’s a puzzle and I guess a challenge for us all in sport: if relationships and the mental side are so important, what would happen if we invested as much in this as we do in physical fitness and rehabilitation? I wonder whether practicing empathy is a useful contribution? It costs nothing, and the benefits might also be felt in improved team culture and relationships and indeed, in performance outcomes too.  I suspect that Richie Benaud would have nodded in agreement here.

Stephen Rollnick, PhD, Cardiff, Wales

Contact: [email protected]

Follow: @stephenrollnick


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